Sunday, August 12, 2001

Will Rafter take advantage or vacation?

Planned hiatus could interrupt a hot streak

        MASON — Patrick Rafter has left himself no loopholes. He is headed toward a break in serve that might span six months and might mean goodbye, and he can't imagine the conditions that could change his mind. He has picked a bad time to be playing his best tennis.

        It is not altogether clear whether Rafter's upcoming vacation is a sabbatical, a retirement or a hoax. Rafter may not know himself. But before the affable Australian does anything drastic — before he bags the gypsy life for good — he should consider that his window of oppor tunity will never again be so wide and that it may soon be shuttered.

Patrick Rafter may be saying good-bye to Cincinnati fans.
(Jeff Swinger photos)
| ZOOM |
        “He's probably playing the best tennis he's ever played,” Lleyton Hewitt said Saturday. “And he's playing maybe as good as anyone in the world right now.”

        Barely a month after his five-set loss in the Wimbledon final, Rafter advanced to his third straight tournament championship Saturday with a 6-4, 6-3 semifinal conquest of Hewitt in the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati.

        Rafter's signature serve-and-volley game has lately been augmented by superior ground strokes. He has won 16 of his last 18 matches, 10 of them in straight sets, and approaches the U.S. Open with a head of steam that could lift a locomotive.

        Tennis players peak young and they sometimes stop early. Bjorn Borg won six French Opens and five Wimbledon titles by the age of 25, then quit as abruptly as an appliance whose cord has slipped from its socket. Mats Wilander won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments the year he turned 24, but subsequently played as if semi-retired.

  • 11 a.m.: Doubles semifinal on grandstand court.
  • 11:30 a.m.: Kuerten vs. Henman resumes.
  • 1 p.m.: Singles final.
  • Doubles final follows singles.
  • Television: 1-3 p.m., CBS (live)
        Patrick Rafter is 28 years old, and his best moments may already be memories. Yet watching him at work Saturday, physically drained and yet competitively dominant, it was hard to think him in need of a hiatus. He looked like a guy who should be gearing up instead of throttling back.

        “I have no idea what could change my mind,” Rafter said. “But I don't think much. It's not going to be advice from anyone. It's my life. I think it's time to make my own decisions. And this is what I want to do.”

        Rafter's plan is to cease competition with the December Davis Cup (should Australia advance to the finals), and then leave the tour for a minimum of six months to relax, recharge and review his options. When the tennis world descends on Melbourne for the January Australian Open, Rafter intends to be exploring other parts of his homeland.

        “I'll be just driving around Australia,” he said. “I want to have a look around. I haven't seen much of it.”

        With two U.S. Open titles on his resume, and more than $10 million in career winnings to his credit, Rafter's accomplishments afford him some alternatives. He has been the world's No.1-ranked player — if only for a week in 1999 — and he carried the Olympic torch past the Sydney Opera House last summer.

        Rafter has known thrills enough for 10 lifetimes. But he has also known the disappointment of reaching successive Wimbledon finals and losing both. How much that nags at him we can't know till next summer, when Rafter decides whether to come back to the courts.

        “I really hope that I can find something else in my life that can give me a really good fulfillment and enjoyment,” Rafter said Friday. “I'd really love to walk away, I really would.”

        The more he wins, the harder the walk.


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